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What the ruthless new commander of Russia's military signals for war in Ukraine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Russia's war in Ukraine has been devastating, but the Russian offensive has faced coordination and logistical challenges since the beginning of this invasion. Also, the Russian military hasn't had a single commander leading their forces until now. General Aleksandr Dvornikov is known for leading Russia's brutal campaign in Syria's civil war in 2015, and he's now the Russian military's leading commander in Ukraine. To help us get a better sense of what the new general's appointment means for the war in Ukraine, I'm joined now by Elizabeth Tsurkov. She's a fellow at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Foreign Policy (ph). Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ELIZABETH TSURKOV: It's my pleasure.

CHANG: And we should warn our listeners that this conversation we're about to have will contain graphic descriptions of war. Elizabeth, can you just tell us more about who Aleksandr Dvornikov is, like, what kind of experience he has as a military leader?

TSURKOV: So Russia does not release information about the personality or special characteristics of the person, but we can judge him by his actions, I think. And Dvornikov oversaw the start of the Russian intervention in the war in Syria. And looking at his record during that time, he oversaw a campaign that combined a great deal of disinformation and lies, presenting the fighting that is happening in Syria as one that is targeting terrorism and ISIS, even though it did not target ISIS.

CHANG: Let me ask you about that because he earned a reputation for being particularly ruthless when it came to civilians. Can you give us some detail about what strategies or weapons he employed in Syria, particularly in Aleppo?

TSURKOV: The Russians ended up destroying Aleppo, eastern Aleppo, to retake it from the rebels. And this entailed use of unguided bombs that hit indiscriminately, as well as cluster munitions, as well as thermobaric weapons. Thermite is used to melt metal. So you can only imagine what happens to the human body when it is hit with thermite. And we are also seeing in Ukraine strikes on hospitals, on bakeries. These are all tactics that were used extensively under Dvornikov in Syria.

CHANG: But let me ask you, you know, the Ukrainian defense has been quite resilient so far. Ukraine's also getting many more weapons from both the U.S. and NATO. So does Dvornikov face greater obstacles in Ukraine than he did in Syria?

TSURKOV: The conflict in Syria is matched by its brutality to some extent with the Ukrainian one, unfortunately. But in other aspects, it is quite different. In Ukraine, the Russians are forced to fight a proper military that is well-supplied, well-organized, as opposed to disparate rebel groups that are not united, are poorly supplied. But when faced with a proper military, we're basically seeing really kind of embarrassing defeats that now, you know, apparently Dvornikov is supposed to prevent from recurring.

CHANG: Well, looking forward, based on Dvornikov's history as a military commander, what do you expect from his tenure leading all Russian forces in Ukraine at this point?

TSURKOV: I mean, the conflict is likely to get bloodier, not because, you know, Dvornikov has been put in charge per se but because the Russians are unable to achieve the victory that they expected to achieve very quickly. And so now, unable to achieve those military goals, they are basically returning to their massive use of indiscriminate fire when Dvornikov took over command of Russian forces in Syria, basically destroying the city and leading to mass displacement. And hopefully in the case of Ukraine, when this war ends, people will be able to return to their homes and countries will provide resources to allow people to return and not perpetuate basically a situation of kind of permanent displacement and exile that Syrians continue to suffer through.

CHANG: Elizabeth Tsurkov is a fellow at the New Lines Institute for strategy and foreign policy. Thank you very much.

TSURKOV: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.